By Sadie Nardini
My student Mary came to me nearly in tears one day after class. She’d been working for years to get into a headstand, yet continually watched newer students lift up with ease before her. She asked, “What am I doing wrong?”
Since Mary had come into my yoga classes only the week before, I asked her if she was using her bandhas to help her attain headstand. “What’s a bandha?” she asked, looking puzzled.
This reaction is quite common among yogis today. And without a proper knowledge of how powerful the bandhas — classical muscular “locks” at the pelvic floor, abdominals and throat — can be in your practice, you’re missing out on a whole new world.
Usually used in pranayama, the vision of a super sucked-in tummy or triple chin at the throat can be confusing. After all, we can’t use such massive movements in an active asana practice. It could cause constriction of oxygen and blood flow. That’s OK for short periods while sitting but not while getting a heart-pumping workout
So, many teachers don’t focus on these three areas, and it’s a real shame. Adding the bandhas to your poses can instantly create the power you need to go that extra few inches and rock those pesky arm-balances and inversions. They help contain your prana (energy) and help spark your central nervous system into action.
If you need proof, simply sit, drop out your pelvic floor and relax your belly so you can’t sit up straight. Now try to breathe. I call this posture “yuckasana.” Notice the difference when you engage your pelvic floor and draw in your abdomen. You should become instantly more alert and taller. Now breathe through your nose. Voila! Freedom. The bandhas support the spine for greater range of motion and safety, and they are the root of your most expansive breathing.
After one bandha session, Mary showed immediate improvement. She was self-generating her full headstand within a month.
During the asana portion of class, I prefer to call the bandhas “lifts,” as the word “lock” can cause students to grip too firmly. If you learn to apply them during your active classes, you too will speed light years ahead in your yoga practice.
The 3 bandhas (and how to activate them in order)
To activate your bandhas, use about 25 percent of your maximum effort, just enough to keep your spine and head in optimal mountain pose alignment. Release the bandhas completely once you come into savasana, final resting pose.
1. Mula Bandha: The Root Lift/Pelvic Floor
Active muscles: levator ani, coccygeus, pyramidalis (wraps into lower belly)
How to: Gently engage and lift your pelvic floor muscles (the ones in a diamond from the pubic bone in front, the tailbone in back and the sitting bones on either side) as if you have to go to the loo, but there’s no loo to be found.
Prevents: energy drainage, weak PC muscles, incontinence, reproductive organs dropping
2. Uddiyana Bandha: Upward Abdominal Lift
Active muscles: transversus abdominis, rectus abdominis
How to: Draw your navel in and up as if to touch the underside of your heart. At the same time, draw the points of your lower front ribcage slightly closer together. Lift from the inner body.
Prevents: lower back stress, weak abdominals, loss of breathing capacity, lower ribs jutting forward and straining mid back/spine
3. Jalandhara Bandha: Throat Lift
How to: Draw your soft palate back and up until the crown of your head sits in line with your pelvic floor.
Prevents: dropping the head back in backbends and compressing the back neck spine, jutting jaw forward and straining upper back/cervical spine, loss of blood flow to head
How to use bandhas to power up commonly frustrating poses
Tree (balancing poses)
Also good for eagle, warrior III, dancer’s pose, standing splits
Pressing your inner thighs together, or in this case foot to thigh, activates your pelvic floor muscles. Activate uddiyana bandha too, and slide your throat and head back in line, and you’ll gain greater stability and balance in this pose.
Navasana (abdominal poses)
Also good for jump forward and back, plank, chaturanga, stepping foot into lunges, full navasana
When you lift your legs into core strengtheners like this one, focus on activating your pelvic floor and abdominal lifts to help carry the load. Otherwise, your poor iliopsoas (felt at the hip creases) will take too much weight.
Draw your throat lift back and up to ensure your heart opens, and your lower back curves in to support the belly action.
Crow (arm balances)
Also good for titibasana, flying pigeon, lolasana, eka pada koundinyasana
Once in position, squeeze your knees into your arms to activate the inner thighs. Pull in your first two bandhas, and lift your lower ribs into your rounded back. This will lighten your pose immensely.
Then, move your throat lift back and up to keep your head from weighing down your pose or tipping it forward. You’ll fly so much faster!
Also good for handstand, forearm stand, tripod headstand, L-shape
From your starting position, press your palms and back of the head together to activate your throat lift and bring your neck into natural alignment.
Walk your feet in, and practice squeezing mula and uddiyana bandhas as you take one leg into the air and the other into your chest with a bent knee. You should never jump into this pose, as your neck is at stake.
Rather, develop the core strength needed to hover here, and when you’re ready, extend the bottom leg to meet the top, tucking your tailbone and holding your bandhas firmly as your legs lift.
Full Wheel (back bends)
Also good for camel, bridge, bow, dancer’s pose, upward-facing dog
In this deep backbend, to move the pose out of lower back compression, lift your heels, engage mula bandha to stabilize the sacrum and provide length through your spine.
Then draw your low rib points into your body, and draw your throat and head back in line with your natural curve. You might walk the feet in a little now, as your curve will be curvier, and your spine open and healthy.
Now, add the bandhas into all your poses, reap the benefits — and enjoy!